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Opening of Grounding by Lydia Cheshewalla and Sarah Rowe at Amplify Arts’ Generator Space. Photo courtesy Debra S. Kaplan.

“In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

So goes one of the foundational Christian creation myths, which can also be seen as an act of pottery. This creator deity fashioned humans from the earth in a very typical ceramicist fashion, though instead of firing his works, he breathes into them.

Many contemporary artists have explored this connection between art and soil, like Timo Fahler, Rafa Esparza, Ana Mendieta, Jonathan Herrera Soto, Jezabeth Roca González, among many other wonderful artists.

This includes two Omaha artists who collaborated on the group exhibition, “GROUNDING”, at the Generator Space, open until August 19. The show “explores reciprocal human and more-than-human kinship systems through acts of somatic co-regulation with place, land, and earth,” as said by the exhibit’s press release.

Simply put, Sarah Rowe and Lydia Cheshewalla sourced soil and used it as their medium in this exhibition. The gallery features paintings of human silhouettes, mounds, and hand and footprints made by both the artists. There’s even an opportunity for visitors to engage by leaving a handprint or two on a wall.

“The work was created the night before the show, freely and playfully,” Cheshewalla said. “We simply gathered our tools and came quite literally into conversation in and of the moment, with actions being taken, prints being made, outlines being drawn, each with our own touch but pulled together by a shared ideation of what we were feeling attracted to in the moment.”

It’s both a conversation about land art and ancient history, in a very mute style. It doesn’t scream for attention as, say, a multicolored 20th century high modernist abstract expressionist painting. Its subtlety in tone and lack of monumentality sets the stage.

Opening of Grounding by Lydia Cheshewalla and Sarah Rowe at Amplify Arts’ Generator Space. Photo courtesy Debra S. Kaplan.

Toward the very end of the gallery is a circle with handprints, all made by guests in the space. It’s reminiscent of the Cueva de las Manos, an ancient cave work with hundreds of painted hands in Argentina.

Cheshwalla said the handprints created by community were crucial “because art becomes more meaningful when it can extend beyond the canvas and into the lives of those it touches (or those who are able to touch it). I am also deeply moved by the fact there were at least four generations of humans interacting together and with soil that ranges in age from 12,500-159,000 years old.”

It’s definitely an experience. I attended the opening and was encouraged by Cheshwalla to dip my hands in a small bowl of mud slip and place my hands on that wall (with a photographer taking a few pictures of me doing it, of course). For those of you who may not be keen on getting a little dirty, the artists provided bars of compacted soil, kind of like a brown oil pastel stick, for you to draw with.

At the very center of the space is a mound of soil sitting on a rectangular strip of canvas. To Rowe, it has a historical and emotional significance.

“The mound is a collection of community soil donated from shared neighborhood gardens and backyard spaces throughout Omaha.” Rowe said. “Much of the conversation I’ve shared as a teaching artist over the years has been in clinical and classroom settings, focusing on ways to support pollinators in our immediate spaces within the city. I’ve worked on getting classrooms and workshops outdoors to engage directly with nature using sustainable, playful processes of art making.”

In a gallery art context, it could read as an object in conversation by Félix González-Torres, who is most well- known for creating piles of candy weighing the same as an average male. Visitors are encouraged to take candy from this pile and consume it.

The opposite is true in this case, with Rowe using soil to build rather than take away.

What unifies these pieces is their conversation within Land Art, otherwise known as Earth art, enviromental art or Earthworks, an art movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, But it’s opposed to the white male monumentality of say, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a large spiral shaped artwork in a lake in Utah, named the state’s official work of land art in 2017.

Ephemerality comes as criticism, though Cheshwalla isn’t too keen on calling it that.

“It’s my way of sticking it to the Western art canon,” she said. “I don’t agree with the male quest for immortality. But I really don’t know if it’s much of a criticism as it is just a truth. We’re in a system where everything composts… ‘Hey, look at this thing happening all around you, you should make peace with it because it’s going to be the truth until we exit our organic bodies.’”
Most of us have time to make peace with that. In the meantime, go to the gallery and make a handprint or, as gen-zer’s are saying, go outside and touch some grass and connect with the earth you live on.

“GROUNDING” runs through August 19 at the Generator Space. Located on 950 South 10th Street, #15, the Generator Space has regular gallery hours on Thursdays and Fridays 1pm – 5pm or by appointment. Face masks are required. For more information, visit Amplify Arts’ website: https://www.amplifyarts.org/happenings-events/grounding


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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